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Pakistan kiln laborers hemmed in by debts they can't repay

Brick makers and others live a life of indentured servitude known as bonded labor. They must borrow to live, and their debts pass on to their children when they die.

January 09, 2013|By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times
  • In Multan, Pakistan, Shahbaz, 10, unloads a cart of mud that will be made into bricks by his mother, Nazira Bibi, brother Shahzad and father, Mohammed Sadiq.
In Multan, Pakistan, Shahbaz, 10, unloads a cart of mud that will be made… (Shoaib Qureshi / For The…)

MULTAN, Pakistan — The mounds of clay are so heavy that they have warped Shahbaz's creaky wooden cart. The 10-year-old boy's spindly arms struggle with the weight, about 45 pounds. He teeters as he wheels cartload after cartload to his mother, a waifish woman crouched on the ground who is turning the wet clay into bricks at a rate of three per minute.

A few feet away, 12-year-old Shahzad matches his mother brick for brick. Without the help of the two boys, their daily brick yield wouldn't be high enough to feed a family of seven.

"I hate this," says the mother, Nazira Bibi, slapping a clod of mud into the brick mold and flipping it over with a thump. "I hate the fact that my kids have to do this work, that they're not in school. When I see other kids going to school, I wish my kids were those kids.

PHOTOS: Hemmed in by debt

"But we've got no choice. If we don't work, we don't eat."

The Pakistani Taliban's brutal attack on teenage education activist Malala Yousafzai provided the world a window on the insurgent group's long-running campaign against "un-Islamic" schools in the country's northwest.

But in much of the rest of the country, one of the most entrenched barriers to education comes from moneyed landowners, brick kiln operators, carpet makers and other businesspeople who rely on a form of indentured servitude known as bonded labor.

Among the victims are millions of children such as Shahbaz and Shahzad, who cannot read or write and are likely to spend the rest of their lives tethered to debt they inherited — and can never repay.

In Punjab province, bonded labor is a way of life at thousands of brick kilns that for generations have ensnared workers in a hopeless cycle of loans and advances. The workers don't earn enough to survive, so they're forced to accept loans from the kiln owners. The meager pay keeps them from being able to repay the loans. When they die, the debt is passed on to their children.

From the brick kilns and tanneries of the Punjab heartland to the cotton fields of the southern province of Sindh, millions are doomed to bonded labor. Kashif Bajeer, secretary of Pakistan's National Coalition Against Bonded Labor, says there are no statistics on bonded laborers in Pakistan, but most estimates put the number at up to 8 million.

Pakistan officially outlawed bonded labor in 1992, but enforcement has been almost nonexistent in the face of the financial and political clout wielded by southern Pakistan's wealthy landlords and kiln owners, who provide payoffs to keep police and administrative officials at bay.

Bajeer estimates that 70% of bonded laborers in Pakistan are children, few of whom attend school. Pilot projects in eastern Punjab province have put children from 8,000 kiln families into classrooms, but those efforts have yet to be expanded to the rest of the province.

"The government is supposed to provide schooling to these children, but it doesn't take the issue seriously," Bajeer says. "Most parents in bonded labor don't have national ID cards, and so they don't have the right to vote. And because of that, they are not a big priority for local lawmakers."

Many bonded laborers live in impoverished regions where few people obtain birth certificates, which are required for a national ID card.

At the kiln where Bibi, 30, and her boys work, the acrid odor of chemicals from a fertilizer plant next door hangs over a dirt field where dozens of families toil amid the ceaseless clapping of brick molds as they hit the ground. Bibi's husband, Mohammed Sadiq, also 30, readies the day's supply of trucked-in clay by adding buckets of water and trudging through it to knead it into the right consistency.

Life at a brick kiln is all Bibi and her husband have ever known. Both are children of kiln laborers; Bibi began working at a kiln when she was 10, Sadiq when he was 12. Their debt to kiln owner Akram Arain built up shortly after they got married more than a decade ago. They took out a loan to pay for their wedding, more loans to pay for the births of their five children, and still more to get through the annual monsoons, when kiln work shuts down and no one gets paid. Arain declined a request for an interview.

Their current debt stands at 20,000 rupees — about $200, but to Bibi and Sadiq it might as well be $2 million. The family gets 500 rupees, about $5, for every 1,000 bricks it produces. That's about $7.50 for a grueling eight hours of work. At midday, the family sits together for a few minutes to eat what usually serves as its lunch: a few fist-sized plastic bags of boiled orange lentils and a small wheel of bread.

Shahzad and Shahbaz gulp down their lunch and get back to work. As he churns out bricks, Shahzad's thoughts wander. He daydreams about playing cricket, or anything else to get his mind off the kiln.

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